Lesson One

Preferring Active Voice

This sentence is written in active voice: Bob surfs the Internet. Here’s that sentence cast in passive voice: The Internet is surfed by Bob. In English grammar, voice is a quality of verbs that lets you know whether the word or phrase falling immediately before a verb construction is a true subject (actor) or really an object (something acted upon). If the verb is expressed in active voice, (“surfs,” as in the first example sentence above), then the noun (“Bob”) falling before the verb is the agent carrying out that verb action. But if we express the verb in passive voice (is surfed), the noun or noun phrase (The Internet) falling before the verb is not the true agent carrying out the verb action, even though it has appropriated the sentence’s “subject slot” and will be called the subject by many grammar handbooks. In reality, it remains the recipient, or object, of the verb’s action. We use the term passive to describe the verb construction that achieves this flip-flop of subject and object because it causes the true, active agent (the subject) of the sentence to take, as it were, a passive role, placing itself out at the end of the sentence where it looks (if you’re not alert) like the passive recipient of action–simply because it occupies the “object slot” in the sentence. Let’s step back for a brief grammar lesson that will put the concept of grammatical voice into perspective. Every verb you see in an English sentence carries with it five grammatical attributes:

  • Person
  • Number
  • Tense
  • Mood
  • Voice

Consider again: Bob surfs the Internet. The verb, surfs, is in:

  • Third person
  • Singular (Number)
  • Present tense
  • Indicative mood
  • Active voice

English verbs can be expressed in two different voices: Active and Passive. The active voice shows up in the subject-verb-object pattern you’ve been familiar with all you life, if you’re a native speaker of English. Consider once again: Bob surfs the Internet. This is the simplest, most direct pattern for English sentences. Bob (subject) surfs (active voice verb) the Internet (direct object of the verb). When a transitive verb (that is, a verb that transmits any kind of action or influence) is in its active voice form, that means it’s doing its usual job of funneling some action from the actor (subject) to the thing acted upon (the object of the verb). Passive voice is a bit more complex. To express our sentence Bob surfs the Internet in passive voice, we must recast the verb into its past participial form (surfed), preface it with a form of the verb “to be” in the appropriate number and tense (in this case “is,” because the verb in our model sentence is singular, present tense), and we must flip-flop the order of subject and object. That is, subject and object trade places in our passive voice sentence. What’s more, we must preface the subject with the word “by,” just so we don’t get confused! We end up with a longer sentence: The Internet is surfed by Bob. Once again: the passive voice uses an auxiliary verb (any form of the verb to be) placed before the past participle of the main verb:

Form of “to be” Past participle
is seen
were checked
was made
will be computed


are some more sentences, expressed first in active voice, then in passive: Active: We checked the printouts. Passive: The printouts were checked by us. Active: The managers see the problem. Passive: The problem is seen by the managers. Active: He bought a stock. Passive: A stock was bought by him. Active: The engineers will compute the tolerances. Passive: The tolerances will be computed by the engineers. Of course, it’s also possible to form passive constructions that omit the subject entirely. Just leave off the “by” phrase: The printouts were checked. A problem is seen. A stock was bought. The tolerances will be computed. This leaves it to the reader to figure out who checked the printouts, who sees a problem, who bought a stock, who will compute the tolerances. Passive voice makes us “think backwards,” and it often leaves us wondering who is responsible for things (since it often omits the subject). It takes the zip out of sentences. When a passive construction does include the subject, we see that the sentence is considerably longer than it could be in active voice–and it still didn’t get its zip back. Why then do so many people overuse passive voice? For many reasons: • They are trying to avoid using personal pronouns (“I,” “We,”, etc.) • They have seen a lifetime of poor models. • They have become convinced that passive constructions sound more dignified, scientific, or “professional.” • They are trying to hide responsibility (by not identifying agents). • They are lazy (they don’t want exert themselves to discover the agents of actions). • Their minds land on actions or objects first, and they don’t make the effort to flip their sentences around into active voice order. Common journalistic style has also led people astray: The president’s immorality is deplored by the entire nation. The official story has been rejected by local citizens. The dying woman was abandoned by the senator from Massachusetts. But one can read the sentences more quickly and easily in the active form: The entire nation deplores the president’s immorality. Local citizens have rejected the official story. The senator from Massachusetts abandoned the dying woman. Note again: the active versions are all shorter than their passive originals. But we read them more quickly not simply because they are shorter, but because our brains integrate the information more readily in the actor/action/object format (cause and effect relationship). This is the order we learned in our youth, and we still do better with this structure than with the passive construction. (I never say to my children, “Your feet must now be wiped by you.” I generally shout, “Wipe your feet!” (understood “you” or “y’all”). Consider the following nursery rhymes and note how much more communicative they are in the active voice: There was an old woman who lived in a shoe. She had so many children, she didn’t know what to do. She gave them some broth, without any bread, Whipped them all soundly, and sent them to bed. Now listen to it in passive voice: A shoe was lived in by an old woman there was. What to do was not known, so many children were had by her. Some broth without bread was given to them, They were all whipped soundly and sent to their beds by her. Sounds to me like her kids were using too much passive voice, and she got upset with them. View Worksheet.